post off: do you brine your bird?

shelter_brineturkey.jpg

I have heard over and over again — from Martha on down — that brining a turkey before roasting makes a world of difference. Brining means to soak the bird in a large container, filled with salt water, and refrigerate overnight. This year I noticed that sites like Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table are selling pre mixed spice blends and brining bags. So now I’m a little confused — brining should be a blend of spices? And you don’t need a large pot? You can just wrap the thing in a big plastic bag? The reason I’ve always skipped this prep step is pretty simple — there’s never room in our fridge for a big pot. Does it really make the turkey better? And, can you really tell the difference between a fancy spice blend and just plain salt? Share your turkey roasting secrets here! (And if you want to read more about brining, check out this page at All Recipes.) — Angela M.

Looking for more Thanksgiving dinner ideas? Check out our Real Life Test Kitchen on Domino’s one-hour feast.

From our partners

I recently caught a Good Eats Thanksgiving special on the Food Network. Alton Brown insists that brining is the only way to go – if he said it, it must be true! ;)

There was some pretty nifty science behind it. The idea is that the salt water works to first draw moisture from the meat, which puts the meat/water mixture out of balance. In an attempt to reach equilibrium, the turkey will re-absorb the lost water from the brine, and the salt (and any seasonings) get sucked back into the meat, making it moist and flavorful.

Alton also noted that as long as the turkey is kept chilled in the brine, you don’t have to keep it in the fridge. Salt water is naturally resistant to bacteria, for one, and you can include ice cubes in your brine water to keep the turkey cool.

I haven’t tried it myself, but the show inspired me… I think I will brine the turkey this Thanksgiving!

laura k

I think it makes a huge differance. I did it last year and it was the best turkey I have ever had if I do say so myself.

caroline is right you don’t have to put it in the fridge.

If you want to “cheat” Whole Foods will brine a turkey for you if you buy the turkey there.

laura k

Oh and another way to go is to buy a cheap ice chest if you don’t have one and brine it in that.

Jen

For those of us with limited space (I don’t have anywhere to keep a cooler, either, so my turkey has to stay in the fridge), the easiest option is to buy a kosher turkey. Or at least it’s the easiest option if you live somewhere with a large enough Jewish population that kosher poultry is readily available. The koshering process is very close to brining.

My mom brines the turkey every year. Also, every year, we have upwards of 22 people at the house, so it’s one BIG turkey. I think this year she’s making sure we have room in the fridge for the gigantic pot she uses. But I know in the past she’s put it in a cooler with ice.

Although, Mom’s never used the brining bags, I was listening to a show on Martha’s Sirius channel the other day where they said you could get brining bags at Bed Bath and Beyond, and that they were helpful in making the turkey fit in the fridge. As for the spices, I know she uses some, but I don’t know which (I could find out if you really want to know…). I also know she doesn’t buy a prepared blend!

The first year she did it, she made two smaller turkeys. One the usual way and the second brined. It was unbelievable how much better the brined one was. Juicier, tastier… the leftovers were mostly the traditionally-prepared turkey meat: good for soup. We also panicked when the brining pot wouldn’t fit in the fridge, and ended up putting it in the backseat of the car with the windows cracked. It was chilly enough to put it outside, but we were afraid of the raccoons getting to it!

I love Thanksgiving. I cannot wait for it!

I brined last year. Like you, I didn’t have a pot big enough to hold the bird, so I bought a brining bag (like a big ziploc bag). I was a nervous wreck the whole time, waiting for the bag to explode inside the fridge. Finally, my worst fear was realized, and the bag did rupture a little bit.

Sidenote: I had just switched to natural kitchen cleaners, and in my mind this just would not do to clean up the bacteria laden ocean forming in the lower part of the fridge. I started yelling to my husband that I needed some 409 STAT!

The mess was cleaned up, the bird was salvaged, and it did come out moist and juicy. The cooler sounds like a good idea. Good luck whatever method you choose!

John

I’m planning on brining this year as well. One of those 5 gallon sports drink coolers, the tall cylinders, will make a good place to brine, since it’s more like the shape of the bird and will help to keep the bird submerged in the brine better than a rectangular cooler. I’m planning on using a large pot to hold two birds this year and if the brining goes well, I’ll go buy one of the sports drink coolers. And being insulated as well, you can use the ice trick to not have to keep it in the fridge overnight.

You MUST brine your bird!!!! I have do this for several years now, and there is NO better way to cook a turkey. And seriously – from experience – you can just go down to Kmart or a hardware store and buy a big cleaning bucket. If the bird is frozen, just fill the bucket with salt and water (I also like to add a couple sliced lemons and an orange) and let it sit somewhere safe on your floor overnight.

There is no need to refrigerate or get a messy brining bag…and it is still cold enough that you don’t need to worry about bacteria. By morning the bird will be mostly de-thawed and you can just salt, pepper and throw in the oven.

Like someone said above, use an ice chest. I did brining for the first time last year and it was great. The night before, just move the bird from the fridge to a clean cooler. Fill it with the brine solution, and ice and it will still be cool in the morning.
A bag would scare the crap out of me. I could never do that. All that salty/turkey water and the possibility it would spill everywhere? No thanks.

Heather

The Cooks Illustrated Web site (cooksillustrated.com) has a really extensive section on brining your bird and a review of brands from heritage fresh turkeys to mass produced frozen birds. They note that if you buy a kosher bird or a “prebasted” bird you don’t need to brine it because they are treated with a salt solution which is what you are doing when you brine. Surprisingly, two mass distributed turkeys — Butterball and the kosher brand Rubashkins’s Aaron’s Best — rated higher than many other pricier brands. You can use a brine to deliver the flavor of your spices into the bird, which is what the spice blends are for. They have a recipe for Roast Salted Turkey that achieves the same results as brining but eliminates the need soak the bird in a big container. The brand review and many of the recipes on the site are available free but some of the areas are for members only. You can buy a one-month online membership for $3.95.

Sound silly, but I have been “steaming” my bird for years, by accident at first (added way to much water to the roaster but it turned out great). I add the bird and cover with water and add frozen spice-cubes to cool (the store bought frozen ones, or homemade from fresh spice leaves about to go off to preserve them if I can’t use them up while fresh) dump in the salt or salt/garlic salt mix and sit it overnight on the stove top (turned off – it’s just a convenient place to keep the pot away from the cat). Then I add the turkey to a roaster, add about a cup of the brine (depending on how salty you made it) and fill the roaster about three quarters of the way full with more water(yep, you read that right….3 quarters). Add crazy spices, cook for half the required time with the lid on, then remove most of the water (and make gravy with it directly by just adding cornstarch), take off the top and roast the skin dark. So juicy. The best turkey, created because I was an idiot and did it wrong the first time.

Erica P.

YES, please please please brine your turkey. It truly makes a huge difference and it’s really easy. Their are plenty of kits available that come with a spice mix and brining bag which makes it even that much simpler. I know it’s hard to find room in the fridge but I’m telling you–make room! If you live in a cold climate, fill a cooler with items from your fridge and cover with ice. Then keep the cooler in the garage or on the back porch and use the free space in the fridge for your turkey.

I just wrote a piece on handy turkey tips/products in Quick & Simple Magazine (www.quickandsimple.com) and recommended the Fire & Flavor Turkey Perfect Brine Bag & Mix. You can order it online or check the site for where to purchase. If you order now you’ll have it in plenty of time for the holiday!

Alley

If I was cooking a turkey, I would totally brine it. I brine chickens (and sometimes even just chicken breasts) whenever I roast them with garlic, thyme, and peppercorns, and they come out awesome. Keep in mind that it usually takes a little longer to cook a brined bird.

I’ve been brining my turkey for the past four years, and I don’t think I will ever NOT brine my turkey again. I have a rubbermaid tote that gets cleaned out and is a great size for the turkey, plus the handles are easy to grip because the turkey + water mixture is HEAVY! I’ve had to move shelves around in the fridge to accomodate the tote, in one fridge I just pulled my whole crisper out, but at least the top is flat so you can stack things on top.

I don’t know about putting spices in the brine mixture, sounds like a bunch of hype to me. Salt and sugar are all I put in. Two cups of course salt and one cup of sugar; dissolve in lots of water and then submerse the turkey. Put in the fridge for 24 hours.

On top of that, the turkey gets rubbed down with course salt and white pepper before roasting. I cover mine with a wet towel (soaked in chicken or turkey broth) for the first three or four hours of cooking, basting every half hour.

Sorry for the huge comment, but I consider myself a turkey expert at this point. I went to a party at my cousins house and all of his friends were like “oh wow, so you’re the turkey lady?”. I guess inviting my cousin and his roommates/friends for dinner has given me a reputation…

Just make sure it’s not a frozen bird… I made the mistake of buying an organic bird that was still a bit frozen and it was kind of a disaster. I just used a big plastic cleaning bucket and don’t tell anyone, but I don’t think I put it in the fridge…

Emily

I don’t brine. It’s another level of stress that I don’t need for Thanksgiving. If Thanksgiving is at my parents, the turkey is a) smoked or b) basted in wine and butter. Both produce very tasty birds, and both lend themselves well to 4+ cooks fussing over the bird.

If I’m doing Thanksgiving solo, I go for wine and butter.

This is the year I get to find out how my partner’s family does turkey. Should be fun :).

I don’t brine, but I also don’t cook dinner that often. This year, I am making a champagne turkey….big roasting bag, one apple, one onion, and most of a bottle of champagne. It’s kind of brining, but more steaming. Supposed to produce a ridiculously tender bird.

Let’s hope it works and nothing explodes in my oven.

AB

If you buy a kosher turkey you don’t have to brine. It’s already done in the koshering process.

Benita

Hmmph, It’s funny that you would ask to brine or not to brine…I never knew there was any other way to cook a turkey…LOL. And I could never figure out why so many people disliked turkey and called it dry. I think brining, whether you do it or its already been done to the turkey when you get it, is a necessary step for a moist delectable turkey.

Holly D

As a stylist, I’ve worked in the Cooks Illustrated kitchen a few times and one day I walked into the test kitchen (same as on the now cancelled show “America’s test Kitchen”) and
witnessed them brining at least 20 turkeys in huge plastic containers of brine. They swear by it! I tried it once at home and kept it in too long which WAS overnight. I would go a max. of 3 hrs. The turkey when cooked could have bounced like a basketball. I am too afraid to ever try again.
However I do follow their direction to cook the bird breast down for most of the oven time in order to allow the juices to flow to that area.
Lastly, I have been buying kosher turkey breast (Aaron’s brand I think) in Trader Joes and they have been amazing.
Now I know why, as explained above that koshering is like brining.
Happy TG!!

Weighing in a little late here, but I cooked my first turkey this weekend in a pre-Thanksgiving celebration with friends, so I thought I’d share my findings. I had been intending to brine, but didn’t realize until after I bought my turkey that some people recommend not brining Butterballs because they’re pre-injected with a salt solution. After reading some conflicting internet reseplace about brining Butterballs, I decided to follow Alton Brown’s brining recipe, but using half the salt so it woudln’t be too salty. It turned out really moist and juicy, so I’m deeming it a success. I would definitely brine again. We brined it in a cooler in our garage for about 8 hours, where it was cold enough out to keep it at a proper temperature. We were concerned about cooking it too long, and hence may have taken it out a little early, so some of the dark meat went back in the oven after we roasted it. Anyway, my friends seemed to like it, so I just thought I’d share my experience here. Good luck to those cooking turkeys this week!

Veronica

Also a bit late . . . we brine in a bucket. The home improvement places sell empty plastic buckets for paint, etc and we just wash it out and fill with cold water and put a bag of ice on top to keep things chilly. It didn’t occur to me until now but I’ll line the bucket with a garbage bag to make clean up even easier. We leave the bucket on our enclosed back porch where it is nice and cold.

Mary T

I have never heard of this in my LIFE but it sounds amazing!

(Scrappy girl: Define “Kind of a disaster.”)

I always brine. I use sugar, salt, some sort of citrus fruit (squeeze out the juice and throw the whole thing in the bag, and fresh herbs if I have them around. It’s really simple and the turkey comes out beautifully. I usually put the brining bag inside the vegetable drawer of my fridge so there’s no worries about spilling.

LM

Where I live (Austin), you can buy a fresh, free-range turkey pre-brined. It’s just 10 cents extra per pound.

My turkeys have always turned out great — a whole ‘nother experience from a frozen bird.

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